DALLAS — Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, grew up next to a leper colony in Liberia and was forced to flee from years of war before returning to his country, years later, to find it ravaged by the disease that ultimately took his life as well.
Duncan, 42, arrived in Dallas in late September, realizing a long-held ambition to join relatives. He came to attend the high-school graduation of his son, who was born in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast and was brought to the U.S. as a toddler when the boy’s mother successfully applied for resettlement.
“His son had told his mother, ’I want to see my dad. Can we help my dad to come?’ And they fixed his papers to come to this country,” said Duncan’s brother Wilfred Smallwood, whose son, Oliver Smallwood, remains in quarantine with the rest of the household that hosted Duncan before he was diagnosed with Ebola.
The trip was the culmination of decades of effort, friends and family members said. But when Duncan arrived in Dallas, though he showed no symptoms, he had already been exposed to Ebola. His neighbours in the Liberian capital believe Duncan become infected with the deadly disease when he helped a sick pregnant neighbour a few weeks ago who later died from it. It was unclear if he had learned of the woman’s diagnosis before travelling.
Duncan’s life reflected the common hardships of many Liberians who fled or endured the country’s 14 years of civil war.
He grew up in the village of Green Hill Quarry near the Yila Mission, an American Baptist mission hospital and leper colony, according to a lifelong friend and former neighbour, Thomas Kwenah. Duncan later moved to a middle-class area in Monrovia to attend high school, according to a friend from that time, Tonia Wordsworth.
“It was before the war so everything was normal: electricity, water, education,” said Wordsworth, who now lives in Calverton, Maryland. Their families were close, she said, calling Duncan a “dutiful” young man who was “like a brother.”
Duncan was 18 when warlord Charles Taylor and his soldiers invaded Liberia from neighbouring Ivory Coast, initiating years of conflict that eventually cost some 250,000 lives — about 10 per cent of the Liberian population.
Duncan’s half-sister, Mai Wureh, had arrived with her husband in the U.S. in 1989, shortly before Taylor’s invasion, and helped her family apply for resettlement there, but the application was denied.
“Mai had filed for us to leave the war zone, but after a long time, the U.S. rejected all of us,” Smallwood said.
Duncan, Smallwood and about 20 other family members fled in the opposite direction from Taylor, to a refugee camp outside the Ivorian border city of Danane. It was there that Duncan met Louise Troh.
“We all lived in Ivory Coast in the refugee camp, and by 1994, they were boyfriend and girlfriend,” Kwenah said.
When Troh’s resettlement application was approved, she took the couple’s 3-year-old son, Karsiah, and moved first to Boston and later to Dallas, but Duncan’s visa application continued to be denied. Along with relatives, Duncan migrated from Danane to Buduburam, a sprawling, city-like refugee camp in Ghana.
One of Duncan’s friends, Wilmot Chayee, a 51-year-old dietitian, met him there. Chayee said the two would spend hours playing basketball or watching professional soccer at one of the camp’s video clubs.
When the camp closed in 2013, Duncan joined many other Liberians returning home, 10 years after the civil war had ended. He moved back to the same area in Monrovia where he’d attended high school, now a slum wracked by poverty and disease, and into a small room in a private home, Wureh said. He took a job with Safeway Cargo, FedEx’s shipper in Liberia, as the general manager’s personal chauffeur.
But a year later, he was summoned to the U.S. In a recent conversation, Kwenah said, Duncan had confided that he “wanted to marry that girl in Dallas.”
Duncan arrived at Troh’s apartment in Dallas on September 20 — less than a week after helping carry his sick neighbour. For the nine days before he was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, Duncan shared the apartment with several people including Troh; her other son, Timothy; Duncan’s nephew, Oliver Smallwood; and a family friend, according to Troh’s daughter, Youngor Jallah.
“We thought that because he was in America, he was safe, that he would be the one Liberian to survive,” Kwenah said.
Duncan’s family had visited him at the hospital and glimpsed him using a camera system, but said they had declined to view him again because the first time had kept them from being able to sleep.
Troh said in a statement Wednesday that she is “dealing with the sorrow and anger” that Karsiah Duncan was unable to visit Duncan at the hospital Tuesday evening, and so never saw his father again.